On this day in history, February 22

1371 – Think of marrying the boss’s daughter? Can’t aim much higher than Walter Stewart, who married the Scottish King Robert the Bruce’s daughter. Their son Robert becomes king of Scotland on this day.

1651 – As many as 15,000 people along the coast of the North Sea are killed by “Saint Peter’s Flood,” because some saints are mean, I guess. (OK, it’s because it was a St. Peter’s feast day; but it’s still a stupid idea to name it that way.)

The War of the Austrian Succession also involved the Hungarian succession. Confused? So were contemporaries.

The War of the Austrian Succession also involved the Hungarian succession. Confused? So were contemporaries.

1722 – It is actually February 11 in Virginia when George Washington is born; the American colonies don’t change over to the Gregorian calendar until 1752, at which point George objected to having a birthday 11 days too early, and switched to the 22nd. We celebrate George Washington’s birthday today as a holiday which NEVER falls on his birthday.

1744- The Battle of Toulon marks a turning point in the War of the Austrian Succession, not to be confused with the wars over the Spanish, Polish, or Bavarian successions, all of which you distinctly remember from your European history course.

1819 – The United States buys Florida from Spain for $5 million, which is about what the state will be worth after global warming gets through with it.

1821 – Alexander Ypsilantis begins the Greek War of Independence by invading what is now Romania. No, he did not have a bad GPS system in his dashboard. He was trying to get all the Christians in the Ottoman Empire to revolt.

1848 – The French Revolution of 1848 leads to the Second French Republic which promptly elects Napoleon’s nephew as President, who overthrows the republic and proclaims the Second Empire in 1851. Even Karl Marx made fun of this episode in history.

1862 – Jefferson Davis is inaugurated as President of the Confederate States of American for a six-year term. Too bad for him the Confederacy didn’t last much more than three.

I also assisted in getting Darwin and Wallace to cooperate in announcing evolution together

I also assisted in getting Darwin and Wallace to cooperate in announcing evolution together

1875 – Charles Lyell dies at age 77. Don’t recognize the name? You should. This is the man who made the case that geological processes proved the Earth was millions of years old. Without him, Charles Darwin probably wouldn’t have been able to come up with the theory of evolution. (Ironically, Lyell himself never fully accepted Darwin’s theory.) Queen Victoria made Lyell a baronet, and probably thought she was honoring him, but no title could give him more honor than his role as a man of science.

1921 – A rogue anti-Boshevik Russian military leader of Baltic German descent restores a Buddhist religious figure to the throne of Outer Mongolia. Truth is stranger than Game of Thrones.

1924 – Calvin Coolidge becomes the first President to make a radio broadcast from the White House. Legends that John Cage was inspired by this event are not true.

1980 – Just as Saint Peter flooded the Dutch coast, God takes a hand this time to give the United States Olympic hockey team a victory over the Soviets, the “Miracle on Ice.”

I was so famous I became a taxidermist's project (Credit: Wikipedia/Mike Pennington)

I was so famous I became a taxidermist’s project
(Credit: Wikipedia/Mike Pennington)

1983 – The play “Moose Murders” opens and closes on Broadway. One would like to think that PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) was responsible for the closing, though its non-existent equivalent, PETH (People for the Ethical Treatment of Humans) would have had a stronger case.

1997 – Scottish scientists announce the cloning of a sheep named Dolly. Scotland . . . sheep . . . why am I not surprised?

This day MISremembered in History: December 7

You all know about Pearl Harbor, but other notable events happened on December 7.

574 – The Byzantine Emperor Justin II abdicates due to recurring insanity brought on by waging too many wars in the Middle East.

Darnley and the Queen

Darnley and the Queen, before his “accident”

1545 – Lord Darnley is born. He marries Mary, Queen of Scots in 1565. He has Mary’s secretary and rumored lover killed in 1566. He is killed in an explosion in 1567, probably planned by the man who would become Mary’s next husband. Game of Thrones, you ain’t got nothin’ on the Scots.

1672 – Richard Bellingham, former Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, dies. Lawsuits over his estate were blamed for the delays in Boston’s Big Dig project (1982 – 2038?).

1787 – Delaware ratifies the U.S. Constitution. 2,643 firms immediately incorporate there to avoid taxes.

Bligh in one of his cheerier moments

Bligh in one of his cheerier moments

1817 – William Bligh dies. It’s a shame he’s remembered only as the failed captain of the HMS Bounty. He was also the failed Governor of New South Wales as well.

1862 – The Battle of Prairie Grove, the only Civil War battle fought by armies of prairie dogs, ends when all the prairie dogs jump off a cliff and drown.

1869 – A misunderstanding over an illegible withdrawal slip leads to Jesse James’s first bank robbery.

1902 – Thomas Nast dies. He popularized the Republican elephant, the Democratic donkey, Uncle Sam, the modern Santa Claus, and Donald Trump’s hair style.

1905 – Gerard Kuiper is born. His belt size increased so much that it now circles the Solar System beyond Neptune.

1917 – The United States Congress declares war on the Austro-Hungarian Empire after debating for six days whether it really exists.

1930 – The worst disaster in United States history: the first television commercial is broadcast.

Every taxi ride deserves a sequel

Every taxi ride deserves a sequel

1942 – Harry Chapin is born. They tell us he died, but I think he’s still driving a taxi.

1965 – The Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople say they were just kidding when they excommunicated each other more than nine centuries earlier.

1972 – Apollo 17, which the U.S. Government would have you believe was the last manned moon mission, is launched. Either it was all a fake and we never landed on the moon, or it was just the preliminary steps for Apollo 18 setting up a permanent base on the dark side of the moon to defeat the Nazis there; possibly both.

(N.B.: Not to be used to prepare for a history test, to write a history paper, or to drive a taxi.)

Historical fiction on TV: “Vikings”

“Vikings” protagonist, Ragnar Lothbrok

To catch up on how popular culture represents Vikings (and no, Marvel movies featuring Thor don’t count . . . well, they shouldn’t), I sat down the last few weeks to watch the History Channel’s show Vikings, first broadcast in 2013, and now scheduled for a fourth season. I was able to get hold of only the first season on DVD, so that’s mostly what I’ll talk about here. Bottom line, if you want to skip the rest of the review: so-so entertainment, so-so history, but useful for all that, and the series does have its moments.

The History Channel has had some dubious times, having swung from the “Hitler channel” due to the prevalence of World War II features, to exploring the fringes of the alien UFO theories. My expectations for this series were appropriately low. And right from the first episode, there were historical howlers. Was I really supposed to believe that the Norsemen had never sailed west before? Or that they stumbled on Lindisfarne monastery simply by chance? I won’t even get into the outfits, which one historian described as more appropriate for a leather fetish bar in the 1980s. Why is it that historical dramas about rough men love leather so much? Okay, stupid question.

And then there’s the pacing. One can see the struggle between Ragnar and Earl Haraldson shaping up from the get-go, but it takes six episodes to come to a climax. Doesn’t sound so long? The Earl’s been killing Ragnar’s allies dishonorably since episode 2. The show wants us to think Ragnar is some wise, far-sighted man, and Travis Fimmel, the actor who plays him, can sometimes make me believe, but he’s a pussy for putting up with friends and family being killed as long as he does.

I should be putting a picture of Rollo here, but I don't care about him. Instead, here's the improbable warrior Lagertha, who's also Ragnar's first wife

I should be putting a picture of Rollo here, but I don’t care about him. Instead, here’s the improbable warrior Lagertha, who’s also Ragnar’s first wife

A large part of the problem is TV’s tendency to turn historical dramas into soap operas. I first noticed this in the HBO series Rome, which should have been called Desperate Roman Housewives. The producers of these series think that the way to hold our attention is to drag every major character into labyrinthine plots. For example, Ragnar’s brother Rollo is simultaneously envious of his brother, carrying a torch for his brother’s wife, considering betraying his brother to whichever powerful man offers him a deal, bedding Earl Haraldson’s widow, and banging anything else in a skirt that he can reach. It’s all supposed to create dramatic tension and develop Rollo’s character. But it’s all so unreal in its relentless complexity that I end up not caring about Rollo at all. In fact, by the time I finished watching the first season, he was just “the irritant who’s supposed to make Ragnar’s life more complicated.” And the same could be said for many another character.

And yet . . . in between the de rigueur battle scenes and the plot complications, the characters do actually get some chances to develop. Ragnar’s pseudo-wise silences don’t impress me, but his battle smarts in setting up battles to favor his side do. His romance with a woman other than his wife and his son’s unfavorable reaction to this don’t move me, but Ragnar’s way of dealing with his son’s disapproval does.

And probably the most affecting moment in the entire first season is a side show to the main event: not the duel between Ragnar and Earl Haraldson, but the funeral afterwards. Ragnar’s willingness to honor his foe and the grief of Siggy, Haraldson’s widow, provide some genuine emotion, because they are human reactions to events that don’t seem contrived. It’s not Euripides’ The Trojan Women, but the episode exists for the same reason: human grief is real and understandable.

Siggy's usually a throw-away character, but here she's an essential part of the funeral episode

Siggy’s usually a throw-away character, but here she’s an essential part of the funeral episode

But what of the history? Again, Rome provides a reference. The series took painstaking care to get some details authentically correct, while doing great violence to the actual historical events and people. And Vikings is doing much the same, by reweaving history to make what the producers think is a more dramatic story, blending the authentic (e.g., the raid on Lindisfarne) with the inauthentic (e.g., the church at Uppsala). In both cases, just viewing the episodes won’t tell you what’s accurate or a guess or anachronistic or simply wrong.

Yet, in both cases, the series can provide an entry to learning more about history, so long as you start with the question “Was it really like this?” Did the Vikings really worship their gods at a church like the one shown in episode eight? Well, no. But then where and how did they worship? At that point, the historian and folklorist and archaeologist can step in and provide some answers. Most viewers won’t even get that far. But let’s treasure and encourage the ones that do, and help others along the same path.

My own interest in the Vikings began with watching the movie The Vikings from 1958. It was like the TV series, accurate in some details, but doing serious violence to the history. The Vikings started me on the road to trying to find out what the Vikings were really like. I hope Vikings will do the same for others.

That's Ernest Borgnine on the left, playing the 1958 version of Ragnar. Janet Leigh gets to play an ornament . . . oops, sorry, a princess. She does not kick ass.

That’s Ernest Borgnine on the left, playing the 1958 version of Ragnar. Janet Leigh gets to play an ornament . . . oops, sorry, a princess. This one’s no warrior-princess.

Honor in Egil’s Saga

One can tell a lot about a culture by the values it celebrates. For the Vikings, one key value was honor. As shown in Egil’s Saga, honor is a complicated matter, depending not just on what one does, but who one is, and who else one deals with.

Although Egil thought burning people in their houses an honorable course, later Icelanders would condemn the practice as dishonorable, as in Njal's Saga.

Although Egil thought burning people in their houses an honorable course, later Icelanders would condemn the practice as dishonorable, as in Njal’s Saga. (Depicted: the burning of six kings by legendary Swedish king Ingjald, an 1830 book illustration by Hugo Hamilton (1802-1871).)

As you might expect, Vikings could win honor in battle or raids. It makes sense. Go on a good raid, fight a lot of people, take a lot of treasure in booty, and you win honor. Egil Skallagrimsson, the eponymous hero of the saga, was a Viking who took these matters to the extreme. In chapter 46, he led a party that robbed a farmer of all his treasure. But for Egil, that was not enough. He said that was a poor form of honor, that to win proper honor, the Vikings needed to let the farmer know that his treasure has been taken. And how did Egil let the farmer and his family know? Why, by burning down their house and killing anyone who tried to escape. That’s a hardcore Viking for you.

Fighting in battle also qualifies as an honorable occupation. Egil and his brother Thorolf helped lead King Athelstan’s army to victory in chapters 52-55. Athelstan honored Egil with recognition of his favor . . . and two chests full of silver.

And there are duels. Vikings used duels to settle many disputes, including disputes at law (see chapter 57). Egil even intervened in another family’s dispute to fight a duel. A man named Ljot wanted to marry a girl whose family refused him, so Ljot challenged the girl’s brother, Fridgeir. The idea was that if Ljot killed Fridgeir, that he would win the girl’s hand anyhow. Nice idea that, that one might have to marry a man because he killed your brother! Egil was staying with Fridgeir, who has been an exemplary host, and when he found out what was going on, Egil offered to challenge Ljot. Well, when they arrived at the site chosen for the duel, Ljot agreed to fight Egil instead of Fridgeir, because Ljot thought Egil a more worthy and tougher opponent. Ljot figured that if he killed Egil, he would win more honor than killing the younger, weaker, and less famous Fridgeir. In case you have to ask, Egil killed Ljot.

Egil had a long track record of killing people. He believed, along with most Vikings, that revenge was honorable. As in so many things, Egil was a bit extreme. When he was seven years old, he killed an eleven-year-old over a dispute at a ball game (chapter 40). Good thing Egil wasn’t in the NFL during “Deflategate!”

On another occasion, Egil challenged Berg-Onund to a duel over a disputed inheritance when he couldn't get satisfaction by litigation. Painting by Johannes Flintoe (1787-1870)

On another occasion, Egil challenged Berg-Onund to a duel over a disputed inheritance when he couldn’t get satisfaction by litigation. Painting by Johannes Flintoe (1787-1870)

If being a good fighter is something we expect of Vikings, being a good poet is not. Yet Egil was a noted poet, and several of his poems are recorded in the saga. (Although there’s some argument about whether they are genuine compositions of Egil’s.) His first recorded notable poem (chapter 31) was delivered at age three! So much did the Vikings honor poetry that King Eirik Blood-axe, who had many reasons to have Egil executed, spared him after Egil composed a drapa, a long complicated poem celebrating heroic deeds, in honor of Eirik (chapters 60-62).

Another worthy way of gathering honor among Vikings was to be generous. Equals were generous to each other (chapter 68). Wealthy, powerful men, such as Egil’s uncle Thorolf, generously supported many followers (chapter 9). Kings who made generous gifts were held to be honorable, as Athelstan did to Egil (chapter 55). Indeed, if you gave a worthy gift, you not only gained honor, but the recipient gained honor as well. Consider Egil’s uncle Thorolf. He built a magnificent longship that was so much better than King Harald Fairhair had that the king became jealous of Thorolf. Thorolf realized that he was slighting the king by appearing to be better than him, so gave the king the longship as a gift (chapter 11). Harald was pleased, and both men gained honor.

Warrior, poet, and sometime heroic spewer of vomit, Egil was a Viking through and through

Warrior, poet, and sometime heroic spewer of vomit, Egil was a Viking through and through

That last exchange demonstrates some of the dangers of the Viking code of honor. It was not wise to gain more honor than one’s superiors. Thorolf made that mistake, and while his gift of the ship temporarily solved the problem, ultimately his success led to King Harald Fairhair having Thorolf killed (as detailed in the chapters up through 22). And it wasn’t considered good form to act honorably and obviously expect to be praised for it. Late in his life, Egil received a wonderful shield from his friend Einar (chapter 81). What’s Egil’s first reaction? He was insulted that Einar left the shield because Egil thought Einar expected Egil to praise Einar and the shield in a poem! Egil wanted to go after Einar and kill him! Only after he learned that Einar was far away on his ride home did Egil regain his temper . . . and compose a poem about the shield and his friend Einar!

There’s a lot more to be said about Viking honor in Egil’s Saga. But I hope these few examples give you an idea of the range of Viking honor, and the complexity of the society that measured honor in these way.

Walking the cinematic plank: Cutthroat Island

Cutthroat_island_ver2There are some pirate movies that reworked the image of piracy successfully, such as Treasure Island (1950), Peter Pan (in several versions and adaptations) and most recently Pirates of the Caribbean (2003 – present). And then there are bad pirate flicks. While there have always been bad pirate flicks, such as Double Crossbones (1951), for about forty years, 1960 – 2000, that seemed to be all Hollywood could make. I recently tracked down and watched one of these forgotten “gems,” 1995’s Cutthroat Island, to see if I could figure out just why Hollywood couldn’t get it right for so long.

Cutthroat Island has it all, apparently: great sets, fast-paced action, a naval engagement, a treasure, a love interest, backstabbing, family disputes, a monkey, and the ritualized rape and murder of thousands of innocent civilians. Just kidding about that last one. This is a PG-13 movie, which means they can only hint at sex, and while extensive violence is allowed, it has to be relatively bloodless.

But they ARE great action scenes!

But they ARE great action scenes!

Bloodless. or maybe bodiless: that’s a major problem with this film. The movie spends so much time on its action scenes, from tavern fights to ship flights, that the characters get little change to develop. Everything looks so clean and antiseptic most of the time, even cleaner than the Disney-produced Pirates of the Caribbean films. And although Geena Davis could play a hot gal or a determined woman, in this film she always looks like someone’s suburban mother . . . even when she’s supposed to be playing a hot gal or a determined pirate captain.

This could have been hot

This could have been hot

Cutthroat Island apparently was trying to mix serious spectacle with self-parodying humor. This can be a successful formula: Against All Flags and The Crimson Pirate both did it in the 1950s, and the Pirates of the Caribbean films at their best do likewise. But the poorly developed characters undermine both aspects of this film. It’s significant that the single funniest joke in the film is Geena David cracking a double entendre at the beginning, so unexpected given her motherly appearance; while Matthew Modine’s character has his most amusing scenes when he first appears and has a chance to strut his stuff, before he gets sucked into the main plot and all character development is sacrificed.

History? Perish the thought! Apart from being set at Port Royal during the heyday of the buccaneers, history has no role in this film. And the film doesn’t even take advantage of that! Here we have Geena Davis playing a female pirate captain when there was no such thing in the Caribbean, and yet most of the time it passes unnoticed and unremarked.

What we’re left with is a film that’s probably best suited for kids immediately on either side of puberty. 8-year-olds will enjoy the action scenes while the sexual references pass over their heads. While 14-year-olds would snicker at the sexual references.

Cutthroat Island bombed at the box office in 1995, and almost killed Geena Davis’s career. Partly that was due to the film itself, partly to its troubled production and distribution history. Hollywood took it as evidence that pirate films wouldn’t work as mainstream films, as they did with Roman Polanski’s Pirates a decade earlier. Instead, they should have realized that they needed stronger characters and either better humor (the route Pirates of the Caribbean took) or grittier stories (which is where the first season of Black Sails went).

Getting rid of a pirate captain in the Golden Age of Piracy

The pirate crew thinks their captain has screwed up. So how do they get rid of him?

The "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies departed even further from the truth by making the black spot a supernatural thing

The “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies departed even further from the truth by making the black spot a supernatural thing

Well, if you read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, they slip him the black spot, a piece of paper marked black on one side, and the crew’s decision on the other. Late in the novel, the pirates want to depose Long John Silver as captain, but they’re a little short of paper. So they cut out a round spot from the last page of a Bible one of the pirates carries!

It’s a great story, but there’s no truth to it. Stevenson probably made it up himself.

Which raises the question of just how did a pirate crew in the Golden Age of Piracy deal with an unsatisfactory captain. Oh, Stevenson has the right of it in one respect. There really was a commonly understood procedure to deal with complaints about the captain. Which is not to say it was always followed.

Vane in a period engraving, probably by an artist who never saw the man

Vane in a period engraving, probably by an artist who never saw the man

Let’s follow one instance where it was done right. Charles Vane was one of the red hots among the pirates who wouldn’t accept the King’s Pardon in August, 1718. He recruited a crew of other red hots who didn’t want to give up piracy, gathered them in his ship, the Ranger, and sailed out of New Providence harbor. Oh, and he used a fireship to try to burn up the Royal Navy ships in the harbor as he left. He failed, but what brass! Clearly Vane was a daring pirate captain.

Vane knew that the best way to keep his crew happy was to take as many prizes as possible. That way they’d have enough food and drink. And if they got lucky, they might capture a ship with a lot of gold and silver on board. They did well enough for a while. But then Vane lost a prize when the pirates crewing it went off on their own, and spent a month heading south without taking a single ship. The crew grumbled.

Someone really ought to do a movie about Roberts' last fight

Someone really ought to do a movie about Roberts’ last fight

On November 23, Vane saw a ship, pursued it, and ran up the pirate colors. Instead of surrendering, the other vessel raised the French colors and let loose a broadside. It was a French Navy ship! Vane decided the best course was to get away, as fast as he possibly could. It was probably the right decision. It was suicidal for pirates to engage a navy ship most of the time. The navy’s professionalism and strict discipline usually gave them an edge, even against pirate ships mounting more guns. This was so well understood that when “Black Bart” Roberts, one of the most successful pirates of that era, found himself trapped and forced to fight a Royal Navy ship, he tried his best to run past it in a storm. And even then, he thought it so likely he’d be defeated that he gave orders to try to run the ship aground to let the crew escape should they not evade the warship.

The Navy ship Vane confronted actually outgunned his ship. So Vane was very wise to turn heels and run rather than engage the ship. But for some reason the crew didn’t see it that way. Maybe they’d seized so little loot they were desperate. Maybe they were drunk and foolhardy. But they wanted to fight that Navy ship, and they loudly told Vane as much. However, it was a rule that in times of combat or chase, a pirate captain’s authority was absolute. Vane invoked that rule, and the pirates had no choice but to comply, then.

A pirate captain’s authority counted for nothing once the ship was not in a combat situation. Instead, the quartermaster became the most powerful officer. Originally the officer responsible for keeping track of supplies and sharing out the loot, the quartermaster had become a sort of crew’s tribune, responsible for presenting the crew’s concerns to the captain. On board the Ranger, the quartermaster was “Calico Jack” Rackam. Rackam called the crew and captain together the very next day, explained that the crew was dissatisfied with Vane’s performance, and called for a vote to label Vane a coward and depose him. The majority so voted, and Vane was deposed. And that was that.

Well, except for the question of who would be the next captain. The most obvious choice was the other major officer, the quartermaster. And that’s how Calico Jack Rackam became captain of the Ranger.

And there was the little problem of what to do with Vane. Pirates might often be drunk and illiterate, but they weren’t incredibly stupid. They realized that a man might not enjoy losing his position as captain, and might intrigue with his loyal followers to retake command. So the usual procedure was to get rid of the captain somehow. In Vane’s case, they had a prize, a small sloop, accompanying the Ranger. They gave the sloop to Vane and the handful of crewmen who were loyal to him, and the two pirate ships went their separate ways.

Weird fact: One of the "forced" men who overthrew Phillips was President Millard Fillmore's great-grandfather!

Weird fact: One of the “forced” men who overthrew Phillips was President Millard Fillmore’s great-grandfather!

That was the right way to do things. Even so, Vane was relatively lucky. Sometimes ex-captains were put off in a small boat, as Henry Every did to the legitimate captain of the vessel he seized to turn pirate back in 1694. Or he might be marooned on a small island, as Edward England was after he was deposed for being too kind to a merchant captain in 1720. Or, worse yet, he could be killed, as John Phillips was in 1724. Although perhaps the last example is unfair: Phillips was killed when the “forced” men (men who had been forced to join the pirates from legitimate ships) rose up and took over the vessel to end their piratical career. Hardly a voting situation!

Vane’s fate points to another way pirates broke with their captain, or sometimes vice versa. Pirates would sometimes keep ships they had taken, and split their numbers across two or more ships. Usually each ship would have its own captain, but the senior captain would have authority over all of them. Black Bart Roberts styled himself as “Admiral” and had as many as four ships under his command at one time. In practice, this was a recipe for dissension. It was natural for the overall commander to favor his own ship, and the captains of the other ships were often tempted to sneak away during the night or during a storm to strike out on their own. It happened at least twice to Roberts. Indeed, it was after Walter Kennedy made off with a ship in 1719 that Roberts drew up his articles which expressly forbade desertion.

There were many variations of the Jolly Roger; here is Walter Kennedy's

There were many variations of the Jolly Roger; here is Walter Kennedy’s

At least once, the trick was turned the other way. Blackbeard commanded a fleet of four ships in 1718, and they had accumulated a nice amount of loot. Blackbeard decided to cut most of his pirates out of their share. So he ran his two largest ships aground as if by accident. He sent off one of the other captains, Stede Bonnet, on pretext of securing a pardon, transferred all the loot into the smaller of his two remaining vessels, stripped the other one of its ship stores, and then sailed off with his favorite crew, leaving over 200 pirates stranded behind. So much for pirate honor!

They left Kidd's body to hang as a warning to sailors not to turn pirate

They left Kidd’s body to hang as a warning to sailors not to turn pirate

Then of course there were the other ways to end a captain’s rule. He could drown in a shipwreck, as Samuel Bellamy did off Cape Cod in 1717. Or he could die in combat when his ship was attacked, as happened to Blackbeard in 1718 or Roberts in 1722. Or he could be hanged after he has been captured and brought to trial, as happened with Captain Kidd in 1700, and both Vane and Rackam in 1720.

Pirate codes of conduct from the Golden Age (1721-24)

It seems odd for pirates to have rules. After all, are they not the lawless ones, the enemies to all nations? Yet pirates need to keep order among themselves, if they are to cooperate successfully in the taking and plundering of other ships, as well as managing their own ships.

In the third "Pirates of the Caribbean" film, Keith Richards gets to play the keeper of the pirate code

In the third “Pirates of the Caribbean” film, Keith Richards gets to play the keeper of the pirate code

The pirates of the “Golden Age of Piracy” (roughly 1713 – 1730) took as their model the articles apprentices signed when they joined a profession. It is these articles that describe the pirates’ codes of conducts. We have at least four examples of pirate articles adopted by crews during the Golden Age, specifically between 1721 and 1724: those of Capt. “Black Bart” Roberts and Capt. John Phillips, who at one point sailed with Roberts, and those of Capt. George Lowther and Capt. Ned Low, who at one time sailed with Lowther. (Wikipedia gives the text of all four, plus that of Capt. John Gow, which I’ve excluded because it’s not clear whether his crew ever actually sailed under them.) Their many commonalities reflect not just a common pirate culture, but a recognition of the need for certain rules on any pirate ship.

Maybe his lesser share as captain explains why John Phillips once forced a man to drink at gunpoint

Maybe his lesser share as captain explains why John Phillips once forced a man to drink at gunpoint

The highest priority in the pirate articles was the equality of the crew members. Every code stated that crew members equally share in the plunder. Roberts’ code, the most elaborate, also called for equality in voting, provisioning, and joining boarding parties. The captain, quartermaster, and a few other officers got somewhat larger shares (typically two for the captain, though Capt. Phillips had to make do with only a share-and-a-half), but that’s about the only exception to equality on pirate ships. This put them in marked contrast to merchant vessels and navy ships, in which authority and pay were structured very hierarchically. It’s no wonder sailors sometimes chose to join a pirate vessel that attacked them. Pirate ships offered sailors more authority over their own lives, as well as a chance at more money, so long as you didn’t also mind the risk of being hanged.

Next in the articles came discipline. Pirates by their nature had to be ready and willing to engage in combat whenever they came upon a potential prize. Roberts and Phillips made this explicit in their codes: weapons were to be kept in a state of readiness at all times. Perhaps even more importantly, cowardice and desertion were forbidden according to all four of the codes. The most typical punishment for those crimes: death by being marooned.

Marooned (1909) by Howard Pyle (1853 - 1911)

Marooned (1909) by Howard Pyle (1853 – 1911)

Marooning was a simple and devilish punishment. The idea was to strand the offending pirate on a small island that lacked food, shelter, or fresh water. Preferably the island should be far away from the shipping lanes, such that the chance of rescue was unlikely. The marooned sailor was sometimes given a bottle of water or rum. But he was always given a pistol, and enough powder and shot to blow his own brains out. So the marooned sailor had two choices: die quickly from a bullet to the head, or die slowly from starvation and dehydration while hoping that maybe a ship might come by and rescue him.

Most marooned pirates probably died. Without witnesses, their ultimate fate was lost to history. But some survived. Captain Edward England was marooned by his crew over a dispute on the treatment of captives, was left on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean in 1720, along with three pirates who had taken his side in the dispute. They managed to escape to Madagascar.

Said to be Captain Lowther

Said to be Captain Lowther

Capt. Lowther, whose articles are among those we are examining, was marooned, so to speak, not as a punishment, but due to misadventure. He had taken his ship to a small island to be careened, that is, to be rolled on its side on a beach to scrape off marine growths and repair the hull.  Unfortunately for Lowther, an armed merchant vessel spied the pirates and attacked them, damaging the ship and taking much of the crew prisoner. Caught on a small island with no hope of rescue, Lowther is said to have shot himself in the head.

But piracy wasn’t all hard rules and tragic endings. Three of the codes contained incentives for good performance at helping find loot, such as sighting a prize or being part of the boarding party. (And probably the fourth vessel offered the same rewards, but just didn’t put them in their code.) And should you be injured in combat, all four codes offered you compensation according to the severity of your injuries. Lose a leg? Three out of the four sets of articles would pay you 800 Spanish dollars; Ned Low’s crew cheaped out and would only pay you 600. However, if you ever felt a little envious of some legless crew member for getting cash up front, and tried to take treasure for yourself instead of turning it over to the common treasury, you were violating the equality of sharing, and that would get you marooned.

Howard Pyle did a LOT of pictures about pirates, as well as writing about them

Howard Pyle did a LOT of pictures about pirates, as well as writing about them

Piracy was a violent life, no doubt, and the captains and crews knew it. So they set rules to keep from destroying themselves. Quarreling on board was absolutely prohibited, and was punished at the crew’s discretion. Roberts’ code contains what was probably the “safety valve” for this rule: if you wanted to fight, you had to take it ashore.

More curious to the modern eye, but just as essential, was the rule common to all four codes against gaming on board. Why? Think about it. The premise of piracy is that all will share and share alike. But if gaming is allowed, some will leave the ship much the richer, while others will have little to show for their efforts. Gaming would breed dissention and internal conflicts among the crew. It would increase dissatisfaction among those that no longer were making a profit from the voyage. So it was bad for the unity of the crew, for the happiness of the crew, and for the success of the voyage. This rule was so old it can be traced back to buccaneers like Henry Morgan. For much the same reason, Roberts’ rules include one that the crew will not break up until everyone makes a fortune of £1000. With the threat of death by execution hanging over them, pirate ships needed committed crews.

Only Roberts’ and his one-time crew member Phillips’ rules say anything about keeping women off the ship, or prohibiting pirates from molesting “prudent” women. I suspect this is yet another attempt to maintain discipline and keep the crew from internal conflicts. It was unlikely that a pirate ship would encounter sufficient women at sea to keep their entire crew happy. Best that everyone go without until the next time the ship visits a port. Not all crews felt that way; Low’s gang-raped and tortured at least one woman. But then Low was a psychopath, and probably inspired his crew to such deeds.

Sorry, JSB, yours is not a sick beat as far as pirates are concerned

Sorry, JSB, yours is not a sick beat as far as pirates are concerned

No women, no gambling: life on a pirate ship could get pretty dull. What to do for a diversion? Why, music, of course. Pirates loved music. I doubt they were great fans of Johann Sebastian Bach; they probably liked country airs and other old traditional songs. So when they took prizes, if they found any musicians aboard, they often “forced” them to join the pirate crew. But the pirates were not without some humanity. Roberts’ code contains a provision that the musicians are guaranteed Sunday as a day of rest. But they couldn’t refuse to perform any other day!

And that’s symbolic of these pirate articles in general: a mix of concern for the free and equal members of the crew, combined with the need for iron discipline among a society of violent men. Because that’s what these pirates were: an egalitarian society of criminals.